Book Review: “Chemistry Lessons”, by Bonnie Garmus


Welcome to Group Text, a monthly column for readers and book clubs about novels, memoirs and storybooks that make you want to talk, ask questions and live a little longer in another world. .


Here are a few words I hate in conjunction with fiction written by women: Sassy. Fiery. Mindless. These supposedly complementary adjectives have a way of negating the very qualities they are meant to describe: Opinionated. Funny. Clever. The latter is not to be confused with his condescending cousin, Clever. Don’t even get me started on Gutsy, Spunky, and Frisky – the unfortunate offshoot of Relatable.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about CHEMISTRY LESSONS, by Bonnie Garmus (Doubleday, 386 pp., $29), a first novel about a scientist from the 1960s who is opinionated, funny and clever, period. Unfortunately, Elizabeth Zott has been rudely and brutally dismissed by male colleagues who make Don Draper look like a SNAG (Sensitive New Age Guy).

How, exactly, she was cheated out of a doctorate and lost the love of her life – Calvin Evans, a related scientist, expert rower and father of her daughter, Madeline – are central to the story, but feminism is the catalyst that makes it fizz like hydrochloric acid on limestone.

Elizabeth Zott has no “moxie”; she has courage. She is not a “lady boss” or a “lady chemist”; she’s a pioneer and expert in abiogenesis (“the theory that life arose from simplistic, non-living forms,” in case you didn’t know). Shortly after Zott converts her kitchen into a lab outfitted with beakers, pipettes, and a centrifuge, she gets tricked into hosting a TV cooking show called “Supper at Six.” But she’s not going to smile and read the cue cards. Zott forges his way into a role that suits him, treating the creation of a stew or a casserole as a great experiment to be undertaken with the utmost seriousness. Think molecular gastronomy at a time when canned soup reigned supreme. Baked in every episode is a wholesome serving of empowerment, without any of the frills we’ve come to associate with that term.

Along with her serious look at the frustrations of a generation of women, Garmus adds plenty of lighthearted fun. There’s a mystery involving Calvin’s family and a look at politics and local TV station dysfunction. There’s Zott’s love affair with rowing and his unconventional approach to parenting and his deep bond with his dog, Six-Thirty.

Yet beyond the entertaining subplots and witty dialogue, there’s the harsh truth that in 1961, a smart, ambitious woman had limited options. We see how a scientist relegated to the kitchen found a way to pursue a watered-down version of her own dream. We see how two women working in the same lab had no choice but to turn around. We meet Zott’s friend and neighbor, Harriet, who is trapped in a miserable marriage to a man who complains that she smells bad.

“Lessons in Chemistry” can be described with any or all of my words verboten, and it might end up in that section maddeningly named “Women’s Fiction,” which must go the way of the belt. To class Elizabeth Zott among the rosy razors of the book world is to miss the sharpness of Garmus’s message. “Lessons in Chemistry” will have you wondering about all the real-life women born ahead of their time – women who were sidelined, ignored and worse because they weren’t as resourceful, determined and lucky than Elizabeth Zott. It reminds us of how far we have come, but also how far we still have to go.

  • What do science and rowing have in common? Why do you think Garmus decided to dedicate so many pages to sport?

  • Aside from his presumption that his daughter is gifted, how is Zott’s approach to parenthood 50 years ahead of its time?

Where did you go, Bernadetteby Maria Semple. You can’t know Elizabeth Zott without becoming nostalgic for Bernadette Fox, the tortured, inscrutable, cynical yet vulnerable original protagonist who doesn’t care what you think. If you haven’t read this book yet, we’re definitely not friends. Sorry, the movie doesn’t count; equating the two is like giving up on a trip to Italy because you ate a box of SpaghettiOs.

lab girlby Hope Jahren. Interested in reading a more optimistic — and true — account of a female scientist? Start with these memoirs from a professor of geobiology who is now at the University of Oslo. Our reviewer called it “a gifted teacher’s roadmap to the secret life of plants – a book that, at its best, does for botany what Oliver Sacks’ essays did for neurology, what the writings of Stephen Jay Gould have done for paleontology”. (Jahren also gets props for showing “the often preposterous hoops researchers must jump through to secure even minimal funding for their work.”)


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